No DSS: Landmark court ruling confirms housing benefit discrimination is unlawful
Posted 14 Jul 2020
In a landmark ruling handed down at York County Court, housing benefit discrimination has been judged unlawful and in breach of the Equality Act, confirms Shelter. This is a huge breakthrough for the charity’s End DSS Discrimination campaign.
District Judge Victoria Elizabeth Mark declared for the first time that “rejecting tenancy applications because the applicant is in receipt of housing benefit was unlawfully indirectly discriminatory on the grounds of sex and disability, contrary to […] the Equality Act 2010.”
This case is a clear warning to other landlords and letting agents that they risk legal action if they continue to bar housing benefit tenants from renting.
The historic hearing took place virtually on Wednesday 1 July, involving Jane*, a single mum-of-two. After a letting agent refused to rent any properties to her because she receives housing benefit, Jane contacted Shelter’s Strategic Litigation Team to take on her case.
For years, so-called ‘no DSS’ policies have stopped hundreds of thousands of people like Jane from renting homes they could afford – simply because they receive housing benefit. In fact, a staggering 63% of private landlords say they don’t let, or prefer not to let, to people who receive housing benefit.
Research done by Shelter shows that ‘No DSS’ policies put women and disabled people at a particular disadvantage because they are more likely to receive housing benefit. The ruling is a major blow to this unfair practice.
Jane, who works part-time, was looking for a new home in October 2018 after receiving a Section 21 ‘no-fault’ eviction from her landlord. After weeks of searching, she found a suitable two-bedroom house for her family, but the letting agent told her she could not rent it because of their long-standing policy of not accepting housing benefit. This made her homeless and she was forced to move into a hostel with her children.
Jane* said: “I was shocked and found it very unfair that they wouldn’t even give me a chance. I had excellent references from both my landlords of the last nine years as I’ve always paid my rent on time and I had a professional guarantor. I could pay up to six months’ rent in advance if they wanted it because my parents lent me the amount, which I then paid back to them monthly. But when the letting agent wouldn’t take me because of a company policy, I felt very offended that after all those years, when I have prided myself on paying my rent, paying my bills, being a good tenant, it just meant nothing. When I realised we were going to be homeless because I couldn’t find anywhere, I felt sick to my stomach.”
Jane added: “Getting this result is the end of a chapter – actually, I can close the book entirely. I live in a social home now and I am relieved to have a permanent home for my family. I hope I’ll have helped people who aren’t able to be as determined as me. It’s completely unfair to treat people like this, and I hope this will prove that letting agents can’t discriminate any longer.”
Rose Arnall, the Shelter solicitor who led the case, said: “This is the first time a court has fully considered a case like this. It finally clarifies that discriminating against people in need of housing benefit is not just morally wrong, it is against the law. Shelter has been fighting ‘No DSS’ for nearly two years, and this win in the courts is what’s needed to end these discriminatory practices for good. This sends a huge signal to letting agents and landlords that they must end these practices and do so immediately.”
Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said: “This momentous ruling should be the nail in the coffin for ‘No DSS’ discrimination. It will help give security and stability to people who unfairly struggle to find a place to live just because they receive housing benefit. Shelter’s ‘No DSS’ campaign has had a tough fight for people’s right to a safe home. Congratulations to everyone involved for this huge win; it will change so many lives.”
Jane’s landmark case was supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Nationwide Foundation and barrister Tessa Buchanan at Garden Court Chambers.
Tessa Buchanan, barrister at Garden Court Chambers, said: “‘No DSS’ policies have resulted in many thousands of people being unfairly excluded from properties which are suitable and affordable for them, simply because they rely on housing benefit and without any consideration of their individual circumstances. At a time when there is a serious shortage of social housing, this can leave people homeless or force them into substandard housing. This case is important because for the first time the court has declared that a ‘No DSS’ policy is unlawful on the grounds that it discriminates against women and disabled people. It should stand as a warning to other landlords and letting agents who have similar policies that they may be acting unlawfully.”
Leigh Pearce, chief executive of the Nationwide Foundation, said: “We welcome this landmark judgment and were delighted to support Shelter with this case. We know that the benefits system can be difficult for tenants, landlords and letting agents and requires reform, but the fact that people were denied the opportunity to rent properties simply because they were claiming benefits is a scandal. This ruling provides clarity for all parties as well as giving tenants fairer access to homes.”
Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of EHRC, said: “Everyone has the right to a home. ‘No DSS’ policies by landlords and estate agents clearly discriminate against many women and disabled people, as we saw in Jane’s case. We should never see it in a letting advert again. A decade after the Equality Act 2010 was brought into force, it’s saddening that it’s been necessary to fight so hard to protect the rights of tenants like Jane. We’re proud to have worked with Shelter on this case; the ruling will go a long way to ensure all renters’ rights are equal, regardless of their life situation or background.”
Notes to editors:
63% of private landlords say they don’t let, or prefer not to let, to people who receive housing benefits.
Source: Shelter/ YouGov survey of private landlords in England, online, 18+ Dec 19-Jan 20
Case studies and spokespeople
Shelter spokespeople and case studies available upon request.
*Jane is a pseudonym, as the client wishes to remain anonymous and is not available for media interviews.
Jane’s story: Jane* is a hard-working single mum who also lives with a disability. She had successfully privately rented for 9 years, always paying her rent in full and on time, and has great references from her former landlords. She had a UK home-owning full-time employed guarantor, enough savings to pay her deposit, and arranged for her parents to lend her 6 months’ worth of rent to pay in advance, which she then paid back to them over 6 months. However, when her landlord served her with a, she needed to find a new home. She saw a suitable affordable property and applied to rent it, but the agents refused to consider her application, telling her that “for years” they “have had a policy of not accepting housing benefit tenants”. She and her children were left homeless and had to stay in a hostel. Having heard about an earlier Shelter ‘No DSS’ case, Jane got in touch and we started working together on her case.
Other DSS case studies available:
Lisa’s story: The ruling will make a difference to the lives of people like Lisa, who is trying to find a home for herself and her 21-year-old autistic son but keeps being rejected because she receives housing benefit. Lisa works part-time and is also a carer for her son.
Lisa, 47, said:
“We live with my mum at the moment and want to move to our own space, but it’s proving impossible. We recently found a property we like, but after telling the letting agent about my income, we were rejected on the basis that the landlord does not accept tenants receiving housing benefit. It’s always the same, we always hit that wall – as soon as you say part of your income comes from benefits, you’re told the landlord’s insurance won’t cover that, or that the property is not available to let anymore. I’ve worked in an office most of my life and I know the sound of being fobbed off. It doesn’t seem to matter that I’m part-time because I’m a carer for my son. What do disabled people who rely on housing benefit do? Where are they meant to live?”
Details about the ‘No DSS’ hearing at York County Court:
In a telephone hearing on Wednesday 1 July 2020 at York County Court, District Judge Mark confirmed that the letting agent’s policy of rejecting tenancy applications because the applicant is in receipt of housing benefit was unlawfully indirectly discriminatory on the grounds of sex and disability, contrary to sections 19 and 29 of the Equality Act 2010.
At the moment, the only way that victims of DSS discrimination can seek formal redress is through a county court claim. Shelter has been involved in a number of such cases and to date all have resulted in the defendant agents or landlords agreeing to change their practices and offering apologies and compensation to their clients. Shelter is really pleased to see the changes these individual agents have made but were keen to have their research and legal analysis considered by the courts. Having heard about one of the other DSS discrimination cases, Jane got in touch and Shelter started working together on her case.
Jane’s case was listed for a pre-trial telephone (virtual) review hearing on Wednesday 1 July 2020 in order for the court to hear the parties’ submissions. But Shelter and the letting agent involved invited the court to treat the hearing on 1 July as the final hearing and to determine the case by way of making a declaration, which the court agreed to do.
The letting agent in the case cannot be named for legal reasons.
Shelter’s Strategic Litigation Team:
Jane’s case was taken on by Shelter’s new Strategic Litigation Team. It’s a momentous win for both the campaign and for Jane, but also the first of many wins and a great example of how Shelter is changing the way they work to include litigation in their campaigns.
About the team:
Shelter solicitors and advisers use the law all the time in their daily casework to achieve change and secure homes for our individual clients. Strategic litigation is when we use the law to achieve social change by legally challenging policies, practices and laws that negatively impact large groups of people struggling with poor housing and homelessness. The introduction of the Strategic Litigation Team at Shelter has enabled us to build upon our casework for individuals and to work together with our campaigns, policy and communications team to use legal action as part of wider campaigns for change. One example of SL working like this is that, as part of our wider End DSS Discrimination campaign, we have brought legal cases for specific groups of people (women and /or those with disabilities who receive housing benefit) to stand up for and enforce their rights to equal treatment and non-discrimination.
About Shelter’s End DSS Discrimination campaign:
Key wins to #EndDSSDiscrimination so far
We’ve made great progress so far in our campaign. Some of our key wins include:
Stamping out DSS discrimination in the buy-to-let mortgage industry.
Many landlords used to have terms in their mortgages which prevented them letting to tenants receiving housing benefit. We’ve convinced many banks, including NatWest, Metro Bank, Co-op and more to remove DSS restrictions from their mortgage terms. Now all major players have removed them, and mortgage terms are no longer a barrier for landlords letting to tenants who receive benefits
Securing legal victories over ‘No DSS’ letting agents on the grounds of indirect discrimination. The agents agreed to settle out of court, issued public apologies, and paid damages and costs of up to £13,000. They’ve also agreed to adhere to our Letting Agents Guide
Persuading Zoopla and Rightmove to remove ‘No DSS’ restrictions from their sites. These should no longer appear on the property portals’ adverts
Demonstrating that insurance policies that don’t discriminate are available. Some thought landlord insurance policies prohibited landlords from letting to tenants who receive housing benefit. But through our work with the British Insurance Brokers’ Association (IBBA), we’ve shown that most insurance brokers can find insurance policies that cover this situation at little or no extra cost
Getting confirmation that there is no excuse for blanket bans. Organisations like the Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) and The Property Ombudsman (TPO) confirmed that there is no excuse or justification for letting agents and landlords having blanket bans against tenants who receive housing benefit
Together, we’re making progress and changing things for renters receiving Housing Benefit. We know that change is possible, but if we’re going to stamp out DSS discrimination, it’s going to take all of us. Stay up to date with our No DSS live campaign blog and keep an eye out for future wins!
About Tessa Buchanan
Tessa Buchanan is a barrister at Garden Court Chambers. She specialises in housing and community care, with a particular interest in cases involving discrimination, public law, and human rights issues. Almost all of her work is funded by legal aid. She is a co-author of Housing Allocation and Homelessness: Law and Practice (fifth edition, Lexis Nexis, 2018) and a contributing author to Gypsy and Traveller Law (third edition, Legal Action Group, 2020) and the Housing Law Handbook: A Practical Guide (second edition, Law Society, 2020). She is recommended in Chambers and Partners and is on the EHRC’s panel of preferred counsel.
About the Nationwide Foundation
As an independent charity, the Nationwide Foundation influences changes to improve circumstances for those people in the UK who most need help. Its vision is for everyone in the UK to have access to a decent home that they can afford, and its strategy seeks to improve the lives of people who are disadvantaged because of their housing circumstances. To do this, it aims to increase the availability of decent affordable homes. The Decent Affordable Homes strategy began in 2013 and the Nationwide Foundation is committed to this strategy until 2026. Support for this case was provided under the Nationwide Foundation’s Transforming the Private Rented Sector Programme.
The Nationwide Foundation was established by Nationwide Building Society in 1997 as a fully independent foundation. It is a registered charity (no. 1065552) and a company limited by guarantee in England and Wales (no. 3451979). Follow @NationwideFdtn www.nationwidefoundation.org.uk
For any enquiries about the Nationwide Foundation, please contact:
Sam Phripp, Communications, Policy and Public Affairs Officer on 07880 462129 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)
The Equality and Human Rights Commission is Great Britain’s national equality body and has been awarded an ‘A’ status as a National Human Rights Institution (NHRI) by the United Nations.
Our job is to help make Britain fairer. We do this by safeguarding and enforcing the laws that protect people’s rights to fairness, dignity and respect.
As a statutory non-departmental public body established by the Equality Act 2006, the Commission operates independently. We aim to be an expert and authoritative organisation that is a centre of excellence for evidence, analysis and equality and human rights law. We also aspire to be an essential point of contact for policy makers, public bodies and business.
We use our unique powers to challenge discrimination, promote equality of opportunity and protect human rights. We work with other organisations and individuals to achieve our aims but are ready to take tough action against those who abuse the rights of others.